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BFG Tech’s GeForce 7800 GS OC AGP graphics card

Scott Wasson
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OWNERS OF PC SYSTEMS with AGP slots have been getting the shaft lately when it comes to graphics cards. NVIDIA released its GeForce 7 series this past summer, and ATI has introduced not one, but two generations of high-end Radeon X1000-series GPUs. Yet neither company has seen fit to introduce a fast new AGP card, somehow figuring that the upgrade market would prefer PCI Express so overwhelmingly it didn’t matter. That seems to be a rather harsh assessment given the fact that one can slide an Athlon 64 X2 into a reasonably decent Socket 939 AGP mobo like the Asus A8V and get a dual-core CPU upgrade.

Fortunately, NVIDIA and BFG Tech are looking to right that wrong by introducing the GeForce 7800 GS OC, which brings the shader power of the GeForce 7 architecture to an AGP slot near you—or at least some of that shader power, anyhow. The GeForce 7800 GS is based on the same G70 GPU that powers other 7800-series graphics cards, but it’s cut down to a portion of the full functionality of a GeForce 7800 GTX. Does this G70 “lite” still have what it takes to dominate the AGP graphics upgrade market? Let’s find out.

The card
Our lovely contestant today is the GeForce 7800 GS OC card from BFG Technologies. This blue-and-green beauty features a single-slot cooler, an AGP connector, and a four-pin Molex auxiliary power connector that’s friendly to older power supplies.


BFG’s GeForce 7800 GS AGP


M-M-M-Molex!

NVIDIA recommends at least a 350W power supply unit to keep the 7800 GS stable and happy, which shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for any AGP-based system still worth keeping in 2006. This card features one DVI and port one VGA port, presumably because those frozen in time enough to prefer AGP are also not picky about getting digital signals to two LCD displays at once. I suppose that’s a safe bet. BFG does include a DVI-to-VGA converter in the box with the card, along with a Y-cable for the Molex power connection.

NVIDIA says cards like this one should be in Best Buy stores by this coming Sunday, and they should be available from online vendors by the following Monday. Judging by what we’ve seen already, we’d expect “e-tail” availability to happen even sooner than that, though. Prices should range from $299 to $349.

So what do you get for that price? Well, let’s look under the hood and see.


NVIDIA’s PCI Express-AGP bridge chip (foreground) and the G70 GPU

The GeForce 7800 GS packs an honest-to-goodness G70 graphics processor—the same one found in the GeForce 7800 GTX. In order to make this PCI-Express-native GPU talk over an AGP port, NVIDIA pairs it up with the HSI bridge chip; this is the same chip that made it possible for AGP-native GPUs like the NV40 to work on PCI Express cards back in the day. The bridge chip is simply translating in a different direction here, mediating between a PCI Express GPU and AGP core logic.

Unlike on the GeForce 7800 GTX, though, the G70 graphics processor on the 7800 GS isn’t operating at full capacity. In its wisdom, NVIDIA has seen fit to disable vast portions of that big GPU you see pictured above. They’ve chopped down the G70’s 24 pixel shaders by two “quads,” so that 16 pixel shaders remain. Two of the GPU’s eight vertex shaders have been lobotomized, leaving a total of six. And they’ve nixed half of the ROPs responsible for pixel output, so that the 7800 GS has only eight.

Now, the reasons for this hack job on the G70 GPU could be several. Sometimes, a portion of a chip just doesn’t come out working properly, but the GPU can still be used in a partial configuration like this one. It’s possible NVIDIA has a load of G70 chips sitting in a warehouse somewhere that aren’t quite up to the task of acting like a full 7800 GTX. Other times, chipmakers deactivate portions of a chip purely for product segmentation reasons. We really like the GeForce 7800 GT, another partially realized G70 product, because it’s a better value for the money than the full GTX. In the case of the GeForce 7800 GS, NVIDIA’s motivations for cutting down the G70 to a 6 vertex shader/16 pixel shader/8 ROPs config may be some combination of a desire to move chips that aren’t 100% perfect and an intention to meet the needs of a lower-end market. I dunno.

The upshot of it all is that the GeForce 7800 GS should still be one of the fastest graphics cards ever to slide into an AGP slot, but it won’t be a titan of graphics performance like a five-hundred-dollar 7800 GTX.

NVIDIA’s recommended clock speeds for the 7800 GS are 375MHz for the core GPU clock and 1.2GHz for the card’s 256MB of GDDR3 memory. As is its custom, BFG Tech has chosen to push the envelope a little bit and offer an “overclocked” in the box version of the 7800 GS, which is what we’re reviewing here today. Of course, because this is a BFG Tech card, the “overclocked” speed carries no real risk with it. BFG’s GeForce 7800 GS OC comes with a lifetime warranty and a pipeline to some of the best tech support in the biz.

Sizing up the AGP options
Compared to other high-end AGP cards, the 7800 GS’s combination of clock speeds and execution resources is… not bad. Sixteen G70-class shader pipes at 400MHz ought to outdo the GeForce 6800 Ultra’s sixteen pipes at the same speed. And the 6800 Ultra is a pretty good match for the Radeon X850 XT, ATI’s most prominent high-end AGP graphics card. The Radeon X850 XT is selling online for under $400, so it’s probably the 7800 GS’s closest competition when both price and performance potential are taken into account.

In order to put the GeForce 7800 GS into proper context, we’ve tested it against a range of the latest high-end PCI Express graphics cards, as well as one of ATI’s best AGP cards. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an AGP version of the Radeon X850 XT on hand, but I did have the older Radeon X800 XT Platinum Edition, which runs at the exact same core clock speed and nearly the same memory clock speed as the Radeon 850 XT and uses the same GPU architecture. (In fact, the X850 XT was just a tweak of the X800 series intended to help bring wider product availability among high-end cards.) So consider the older Radeon X800 XT PE in our benchmark results as a stand-in for the Radeon X850 XT, if you will; its performance should be virtually identical.

The GeForce 6800 GT has been another favorite in the AGP graphics world. NVIDIA recently introduced the GT’s direct replacement, the GeForce 6800 GS, which delivers almost exactly the same performance as the GT for less money. AGP versions of the 6800 GS are selling for around $200, and the 7800 GS will have to distance itself from the 6800 GS in order to justify its higher price tag. We’ve included the PCI-E version of the 6800 GS in our tests, so you may want to keep an eye on those scores.

Now, let’s see whether the 7800 GS AGP can make a case for itself as the best AGP upgrade option, and whether that option is as compelling as the abundance of fancy new cards for PCI Express systems.

 
Our testing methods
As ever, we did our best to deliver clean benchmark numbers. Tests were run at least three times, and the results were averaged.

Our test systems were configured like so:

Processor Athlon 64 X2 4800+ 2.4GHz
System bus 1GHz HyperTransport
Motherboard Asus A8N32-SLI Deluxe Asus A8V Deluxe ATI RD480 CrossFire reference board
BIOS revision 0806 1018 080012
North bridge nForce4 SLI X16 K8T800 Pro Radeon Xpress 200P CrossFire Edition
South bridge VT8237 SB450
Chipset drivers SMBus driver 4.50 Hyperion Pro 5.04a SMBus driver 5.10.1000.5
Memory size 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type Crucial PC3200 DDR SDRAM at 400MHz Crucial PC3200 DDR SDRAM at 400MHz Crucial PC3200 DDR SDRAM at 400MHz
CAS latency (CL) 2.5 2.5 2.5
RAS to CAS delay (tRCD) 3 3 3
RAS precharge (tRP) 3 3 3
Cycle time (tRAS) 8 8 8
Hard drive Maxtor DiamondMax 10 250GB SATA 150 Maxtor DiamondMax 10 250GB SATA 150 Maxtor DiamondMax 10 250GB SATA 150
Audio Integrated nForce4/ALC850 with Realtek 5.10.0.5970 drivers Integrated VT8237/ALC850 with Realtek 5.10.0.5970 drivers Integrated SB450/ALC880 with Realtek 5.10.00.5188 drivers
Graphics GeForce 6800 GS 256MB PCI-E
with ForceWare 81.98 drivers
BFG Tech GeForce 7800 GS OC 256MB AGP
with ForceWare 81.98 drivers
Radeon X1800 XL 256MB PCI-E 
with Catalyst 8-203-3-060104a-029367E drivers
XFX GeForce 7800 GT 256MB PCI-E
with ForceWare 81.98 drivers
Radeon X800 XT Platinum Edition 256MB AGP
with Catalyst 6.1 drivers 
Radeon X1800 XT 512MB PCI-E
with Catalyst 8-203-3-060104a-029367E drivers
MSI GeForce 7800 GTX 256MB PCI-E
with ForceWare 81.98 drivers
  Radeon X1900 XTX 512MB PCI-E
with Catalyst 8-203-3-060104a-029367E drivers
GeForce 7800 GTX 512 512MB PCI-E
with ForceWare 81.98 drivers
  Radeon X1900 CrossFire 512MB PCI-E
with Catalyst 8-203-3-060104a-029367E drivers
    All-in-Wonder X1900 256MB PCI-E
with Catalyst 8-203-3-060104a-029367E drivers
OS Windows XP Professional (32-bit)
OS updates Service Pack 2, DirectX 9.0c SDK update (December 2005)

Thanks to Crucial for providing us with memory for our testing. 2GB of RAM seems to be the new standard for most folks, and Crucial hooked us up with some of its 1GB DIMMs for testing. Although these particular modules are rated for CAS 3 at 400MHz, they ran perfectly for us at 2.5-3-3-8 with 2.85V.

All of our test systems were powered by OCZ PowerStream 520W power supply units. The PowerStream was one of our Editor’s Choice winners in our last PSU round-up.

Unless otherwise specified, the image quality settings for both ATI and NVIDIA graphics cards were left at the control panel defaults.

The test systems’ Windows desktops were set at 1280×1024 in 32-bit color at an 85Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.

We used the following versions of our test applications:

The tests and methods we employ are generally publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

 

Pixel-pushing power

  Core clock
(MHz)
Pixels/
clock
Peak fill rate
(Mpixels/s)
Textures/
clock
Peak fill rate
(Mtexels/s)
Memory
clock (MHz)
Memory bus
width (bits)
Peak memory
bandwidth (GB/s)
Radeon X1600 XT 590 4 2360 4 2360 1380 128 22.1
GeForce 6800  325 8 2600 12 3900 700 256 22.4
GeForce 6600 GT 500 4 2000 8 4000 1000 128 16.0
Radeon X800 400 12 4800 12 4800 700 256 22.4
GeForce 6800 GS 425 8 3400 12 5100 1000 256 32.0
GeForce 6800 GT 350 16 5600 16 5600 1000 256 32.0
GeForce 7800 GS 375 8 3000 16 6000 1200 256 38.4
Radeon X800 XL 400 16 6400 16 6400 980 256 31.4
GeForce 7800 GS OC 400 8 3200 16 6400 1250 256 40.0
GeForce 6800 Ultra 425 16 6800 16 6800 1100 256 35.2
GeForce 7800 GT 400 16 6400 20 8000 1000 256 32.0
All-In-Wonder X1900 500 16 8000 16 8000 960 256 30.7
Radeon X1800 XL 500 16 8000 16 8000 1000 256 32.0
Radeon X850 XT 520 16 8320 16 8320 1080 256 34.6
Radeon X850 XT PE 540 16 8640 16 8640 1180 256 37.8
XFX GeForce 7800 GT 450 16 7200 20 9000 1050 256 33.6
Radeon X1800 XT 625 16 10000 16 10000 1500 256 48.0
Radeon X1900 XT 625 16 10000 16 10000 1450 256 46.4
GeForce 7800 GTX 430 16 6880 24 10320 1200 256 38.4
Radeon X1900 XTX 650 16 10400 16 10400 1550 256 49.6
GeForce 7800 GTX 512 550 16 8800 24 13200 1700 256 54.4

Like I said, the 7800 GS’s combination of hardware resources and clock speeds is not bad—not overwhelming, but in the ballpark with the GeForce 6800 Ultra. The 7800 GS has more memory bandwidth than the Radeon X850 XT but not nearly the theoretical peak pixel filling and texturing capacity. The trick for the 7800 GS will be using its GeForce 7-class pixel shaders, its support for Shader Model 3.0, and its overall architectural efficiency to make up the difference.

3DMark’s synthetic fill rate tests illustrate the problem, especially the multitexturing test. The Radeon X800 XT PE, like the Radeon X850 XT, has gobs of texturing capacity thanks to its very high clock speeds. The 7800 GS OC can’t keep up in terms of pure fill rate.

 

Quake 4
We tested Quake 4 using our own custom-recorded timedemo. The game was running at its “Ultra” quality settings with 4X antialiasing enabled.

The 7800 GS OC distances itself somewhat from the GeForce 6800 GS in Quake 4, but not by a wide margin. Sadly, our Radeon X800 XT PE managed to extract itself from what might have been an unflattering comparison (since ATI cards in general don’t fare well in OpenGL games) by causing Quake 4 to crash every time we tried to load up the game. We just didn’t have time to futz around with different driver revisions trying to get it to work, so the X800 XT PE took a mulligan on this one.

 

Half-Life 2: Lost Coast
This new expansion level for Half-Life 2 makes use of high-dynamic-range lighting and some nice pixel shader effects to create an impressive-looking waterfront. We tested with HDR lighting enabled on all cards.

Even with all of the fancy HDR lighting and shader effects in Lost Coast, the 7800 GS OC only narrowly escapes with a win against the Radeon X800 XT PE. The very best PCI-E cards offer nearly twice the frame rate here.

 

F.E.A.R.
We tested the next few games using FRAPS and playing through a portion of the game manually. For these games, we played through five 60-second gaming sessions per config and captured average and low frame rates for each. The average frames per second number is the mean of the average frame rates from all five sessions. We also chose to report the median of the low frame rates from all five sessions, in order to rule out outliers. We found that these methods gave us reasonably consistent results.

All of the F.E.A.R.’s graphics quality options were all set to maximum for our testing. Computer performance was set to medium.

The ATI cards simply obliterate their NVIDIA competition in F.E.A.R., and the Radeon X800 XT PE is no exception.

Battlefield 2
We’re testing BF2 at an insanely high resolution because it runs really well on just about any of these cards at lower resolutions. Also, BF2 has a built-in frame rate cap of 100 FPS. We didn’t want to turn off the cap, but we did want to see some differences in performance between the cards.

The tables turn in BF2, as the 7800 GS OC cranks up its next-gen shader mojo.

Guild Wars
Like the two above, we played this game manually and recorded frame rates with FRAPS. In this case, we’re playing an online game, so frame rates were subject to some influence from an uncontrollable outside factor. Regardless, I think the numbers below reflect performance pretty well.

Guild Wars’ simpler lighting favors the Radeon X800 XT PE’s strengths over the 7800 GS OC’s.

 

3DMark06

Several components of 3DMark06 won’t even run on the Radeon X800 XT Platinum Edition, because X800-class GPUs lack support for Shader Model 3.0 and for 16-bit floating point blending and texture filtering. That causes the Radeon X800 XT PE’s overall score to fall behind even that of the GeForce 6800 GS. But what about those tests that the X800 can run?

In 3DMark06’s two Shader Model 2.0-friendly tests, the 7800 GS OC still comes out on top. The X800 series GPUs are showing their age here, as they will do increasingly as newer games take fuller advantage of the capabilities of newer GPUs.

 

3DMark06

The 7800 GS OC’s sixteen tweaked pixel shader units outperform the Radeon X800 XT PE’s in 3DMark’s simple pixel shader test, even though the Radeon runs at a much higher clock speed.

The vertex shader tests are split, with the Radeon taking the lead in the more grueling of the two tests.

 

ShaderMark
Next up is ShaderMark, one of the few synthetic pixel shader benchmarks around. These numbers should give you some idea how each of these cards runs various types of pixel shader programs. Behold the massive graph.

The Radeon X800 XT PE can’t run two of these tests due to architectural limitations: it doesn’t have flow control in its pixel shaders, and it can’t do 16-bit floating-point texture filtering using its regular texture filtering mechanism (though it could achieve similar results by using a pixel shader program.) Those limitations aside, the X800 XT PE is a surprisingly close match for the 7800 GS OC in ShaderMark.

Here’s an average frame rate across all of the tests for the sake of comparison. The X800 XT PE’s average doesn’t include the two tests it didn’t run, of course.

 

Power consumption
We measured total system power consumption at the wall socket using a watt meter. The monitor was plugged into a separate outlet, so its power draw was not part of our measurement. The idle measurements were taken at the Windows desktop with AMD’s Cool’n’Quiet CPU clock throttling function enabled. The cards were tested under load running Half-Life 2: Lost Coast at 1600×1200 resolution with 16X anisotropic filtering and HDR lighting enabled. We turned off Cool’n’Quiet for testing under load.

All of the PCI Express graphics cards below were tested for power consumption on the Asus A8N32-SLI mobo. The AGP cards were tested on our Asus A8V Deluxe mobo. Also, please note that the Radeon X1900 XT card shown here is actually the CrossFire master card, so its power consumption is probably slightly higher than a non-CrossFire X1900 XT that lacks the additional chips needed for image compositing.

I believe that our Radeon X1800 XL and XT cards are not wholly representative of the idle power consumption of retail cards, either. Our cards are early review units that lack the idle clock throttling we’ve observed in newer Radeon X1800 cards. Our Radeon X1900 review samples do settle down to somewhat lower clock speeds at idle in order to save power and cut down on heat. Unfortunately, our All-In-Wonder X1900 does not.

The much lower idle power draw numbers suggest that our AGP system basically just consumes less power than the PCI-E one. That said, the 7800 GS OC still looks pretty good overall. The Radeon X850 XT PE actually has slightly lower power consumption, but the margin of difference is tiny.

Overclocking

Simply using the auto-overclocking tool built into NVIDIA’s drivers, we were able to put some real OC in the GeForce 7800 GS OC, upping the core GPU clock by 96MHz. The memory clock was less obliging, moving from 1.25GHz to 1.43GHz. This combination allowed us to squeeze another six frames per second out of Quake 4 at 1280×960 with 4X AA and 16X anisotropic filtering.

 
Conclusions
Turns out the GeForce 7800 GS OC isn’t unequivocally the fastest AGP card around. It split the difference with the Radeon X800 XT Platinum Edition—and by proxy the X850 XT that runs at nearly the same clock speeds—in our tests. The 7800 GS is probably the better choice overall because of its support for Shader Model 3.0 and 16-bit floating-point blending and filtering. These capabilities will no doubt make the 7800 GS more future-proof, as contradictory as that may sound for an AGP card. The 7800 GS OC also looks to be cheaper than the Radeon X850 XT, if street prices work out as NVIDIA has suggested they will. That pretty much makes the 7800 GS king of the AGP upgrade market—but if you cast off your Radeon X850 XT in favor of one of these, you need your head examined. The X850 XT may lack a few bullet-point features, but it’s clearly the same class of graphics card.

The value comparison between the 7800 GS and some of NVIDIA’s own current offerings is less flattering. At about $200, the GeForce 6800 GS boasts the same basic feature set as the 7800 GS without that much of a performance penalty. I’m not sure I’d pony up the extra $100-150 for a 7800 GS unless I were really serious about hanging on to my AGP system for quite a bit longer. And hanging on to that system starts to look foolhardy when you consider the PCI Express-based graphics options, such as the GeForce 7800 GT, a superior performer than the 7800 GS that’s selling for about $300 at various online shops. That’s the low end of the projected price range for the 7800 GS. The grass is indeed greener in PCI Express pastures. NVIDIA says it has no plans to produce a GeForce 7800 GS for PCI Express, and we can see the logic if the pricing looks like this.

What’s really puzzling about the GeForce 7800 GS is that its memory speeds are on par with the more expensive GeForce 7800 GTX—and faster than on the GeForce 7800 GT. This speedy GDDR3 memory doesn’t seem like the best match for the trimmed-down G70 GPU on the 7800 GS, especially since faster RAM tends to cost more money. The performance of these cards will be limited primarily by the GPU because NVIDIA has disabled so much of the chip’s functionality. This makes the GeForce 7800 GS just barely the best choice among AGP graphics cards, and strangely enough, that appears to be exactly what NVIDIA intended. 

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